cnn gets it wrong (again)

Give John King this: at least he went on Anderson Cooper’s show at 8 Wednesday night and acknowledged he’s ‘responsible’ for what he says on tv, and that some ‘misreporting’ occurred earlier in the day, regarding the investigation into the Boston bombing.

As far as I can tell, King’s statement is the closest CNN came to admitting what was painfully obvious to anyone watching: in the middle of a big, breaking story, CNN had gotten it really, really wrong.

To be exact, Wednesday afternoon King and CNN consultant/talking head Fran Townsend each said they had sources independent of the other confirming that an arrest had been made. King had earlier broken the story that investigators were making significant progress, and maybe it seemed plausible to whoever oversees these things at CNN that “significant progress” – in this case, video of a person from the area where the second bomb went off – could lead to an almost instant arrest. But it wasn’t, really: in order to believe an arrest had been made, you’d have to believe the video footage gave authorities such a good image that they were able to identify the person, and that the person was somehow known to them, and that the person – who had just helped commit an act of terrorism – hadn’t thought to, I don’t know, move and leave no forwarding address.

Sure, it could happen. But what are the odds?

As bad as that is, CNN’s behavior from about 2:30 on was worse. The network was forced to walk back the story as denials began to pour in from various federal and local law enforcement types, but unless I missed it, CNN never even came close to saying ‘We got it wrong.’ As soon as the story had been shot down, it became ‘miscommunication’ in which ‘several news organizations’ were involved. A CNN spokesperson issued a statement at some point to the effect of ‘We had three sources telling us this was the case. When we got different information, our story changed.’

Or as King said on Anderson Cooper’s show, ‘You’re only as good as your sources.’ Which is exactly the same excuse Judith Miller used for the misleading articles the New York Times published that helped make the case for the Iraq war, and which reporters everywhere have used forever to justify stories that are deeply misguided. Thing is though, it’s not true. You’re only as good as your sources plus your own ability to independently evaluate the information you’re being given. The first question a good reporter asks, especially when handed a big piece of news, is ‘Does this pass the smell test?’

But just as a thought experiment, let’s say King is right and a reporter really is only as good as his sources. Remember, the true story – that investigators are making progress, have a video of someone but have not made an arrest or, likely, even a good i.d. – never changed Wednesday afternoon. The only thing that changed was CNN’s understanding of the facts. Pete Williams at NBC got it right to start and never wavered; his sources told him no arrest had been made. So if CNN is only as good as its sources, well…you can draw your own conclusions.

CNN wasn’t alone Wednesday afternoon; Fox popped up a few minutes after CNN broke the story of the ‘arrest’ to report that Fox had ‘confirmed’ an arrest was made. My guess is CNN went with King and Townsend because one of the network’s few remaining strengths is in breaking news, and reporters and producers feel tremendous pressure to win on days like Wednesday. I suspect Fox still has some kind of vestigial fear of CNN, even after all these years of Fox being number one in cable news, and as such never wants to fall too far behind. The two insecurities, taken together, are a bad combination – we saw it at the Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare last summer, when CNN and Fox rushed to report the court had struck down health care reform. They were of course wrong and Pete Williams, God bless him, was one of the reporters who got it right. A commenter in my Twitter feed yesterday noted that Williams is carving out a niche as the unofficial CNN corrector; next time there’s a big break, either on Boston or some other national story, I’ll still watch CNN, but then I’ll flip over to make sure Pete Williams agrees.

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